Brockport Students Provide Solutions for Local Community
Student projects are boosting the regional economy and strengthening ties with the greater Rochester community.
Not all learning happens in the classroom — and as students at SUNY Brockport are proving, not all applications of it should, either.
Students in business and computing sciences courses are bringing theoretical concepts into action by working with community partners, in which both sides benefit.
Mehruz Kamal, PhD, an associate professor of computing sciences, teaches a course specifically designed around this kind of experiential learning, Information Technology for Development. The course covers how technology can benefit small businesses and, ultimately, impact regional economic development. Her students are teamed up with local micro-enterprises of 1–10 employees to address their technology needs.
Kamal calls it “IT therapy”: the students assess the client’s needs and outlooks, develop a detailed plan, and then work on-site with the client each week to implement the technology solutions. Through this process, the students help the business owners not only to develop new skills, but to generate greater revenue thanks to cost and time savings provided by the improved technologies.
“A core goal of this course is to create a self-sustainable environment where our partnering businesses are able to be in control of their technology resources and skills once the students leave,” said Kamal. To ensure this, students provide extensive hands-on training and develop detailed user manuals.
Since 2012, Kamal’s students have assisted travel agents, pet groomers, gift shops, massage therapists, salons and spas, yoga teachers, tailoring shops, churches, and more — even a goat farm. The technology implementations have been equally diverse, from equipment hookup and basic computer literacy training to website and database setup.
“This experiential learning facilitates a win-win situation for all parties involved,” said Kamal. “The students obtain hands-on experience working with real-world clients and are able to reinforce skills learned in the classroom. The community businesses receive free assistance, are able to establish a platform for sustained technology use, and gain appreciation of the College’s initiatives. And the College continues to strengthen its presence in the local community.”
In the School of Business Administration and Economics, Dean Joy Bhadury feels endeavors like these, directly benefiting community partners, are “the embodiment of a university’s third mission. The first is teaching, the second is research. The third is regional economic development, which should be melded into the first two.”
In his Marketing Research class, Associate Professor Joon Yong Seo also regularly connects his students with local businesses for a semester-long project. In spring 2016, they worked with ESL Federal Credit Union to help the bank staff assess their recruiting tactics.
ESL was up against several challenges: at 28 hours a week, their entry-level positions are not full time, and starting out as a bank teller is required, which deters some applicants. The staff wanted to know how to better promote the benefits of their unique culture to high-caliber college graduates.
Seo’s students developed questionnaires to gauge perceptions from approximately 200 fellow students, led focus groups, and conducted individual interviews. At the semester’s end, they presented their findings to ESL’s human resources team.
Katie Scott ’06, senior talent management recruiter for ESL, said, “The data and feedback we received about the students’ perceptions of banking have helped us revise our approach when engaging and educating students about available careers at ESL, and provided us with a great opportunity to share this information with key stakeholders.”
Scott knew her alma mater was the place to turn for guidance. She approached Career Services and the Center for Student Success about how Brockport students could help ESL with its marketing challenges.
“I was hired by my current manager at Brockport’s spring job fair 10 years ago — the same event I now recruit at,” she said. “I like to tell that story all the time so that students, teachers, and administrators alike can see the benefit of such a partnership.”
Bhadury is actively working to build more such partnerships. As he meets business managers, he encourages them to let Brockport’s students work on the issues that they cannot fit into their busy schedules.
These types of projects have a long history at the College. Many alumni credit this work with preparing them for their current careers.
Sandeep Mitra, PhD, a professor and chair in the Department of Computing Sciences, has often put his students to tasks like these.
Boy Scout Troop 209 in Fairport, NY, sells Christmas trees each year as a fundraiser. They had traditionally had plenty of volunteers, and plenty of sales — but they lacked an efficient way to track all of that activity.
Over two semesters, Mitra’s students worked in groups to come up with a computerized system that would meet the troop’s needs.
One group, which included computer science and mathematics major Josh Swanson ’12, devised a system that maintains an inventory of the trees, provides a barcode to identify specific tree types, tracks tree sales, and records donations made to the troop. The Scouts have used this system each year since 2012 and will do so again this holiday season.
Swanson found that the development process — pitching to a customer, taking in their feedback, and making several rounds of adjustments — was great career preparation. Now a senior software engineer at Aptaris, LLC, in Rochester, his daily work presents similar scenarios.
“I learned what it’s like to work in a large group on a coding project," he said. "Everyone’s code must fit together nicely; otherwise, it will turn out poorly. I also got a glimpse into what a problem from an actual customer is like, rather than working off of a problem sheet.”
Swanson’s classmate Alican Ozgoren ’12, now a software specialist for Garanti, the largest bank in Turkey, agrees. “Knowing that your work will be evaluated and eventually will be used actively by a real customer is the most effective motivator for a developer,” he said. “The confidence that I gained from that project made me what I am as a software developer today.”
In some cases, the benefits of these projects are reaped right on the Brockport campus. When the Department of Communication needed a system to modernize and fast-track its broadcasting equipment rentals, Mitra and his students produced a solution.
The department’s former system of paper sign-out sheets failed to keep up with increased inventory and demand. There was no product commercially available that met the department’s needs, nor their budget. Mitra’s students worked closely with the faculty and staff to custom-build the ideal system. It was first launched in 2009 and is still in use today.
“We are quite happy to still be using it, undoubtedly well into the foreseeable future,” said Television Services Coordinator Jim Bareis.
Michael Steves ’09 worked on this project as his senior thesis for the Honors College and presented about the experience at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) as well as the Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges: Northeastern Region (CCSCNE) — all part of an academic résumé that earned him a SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence.
Now working as a software developer at Paychex in Rochester, Steves is confident this project contributed to his career success. “Being able to say that I developed a fully functional application that was being actively used by a consumer made my résumé more appealing than simply having classroom learning experience, and it helped to impress during my job interviews,” he said.
This is what Mitra sees as the heart of such hands-on lessons. “Experiential learning examples such as these have helped students get that extra edge that enables them to compete in tight job markets,” he said. “During our career fairs, employers who speak on our panels constantly urge students to get experiences like these.”
Seo has seen this as well. He recently received a call from an alumna, asking him to serve as a job reference and to speak specifically about the ESL project, which she called the “most useful” learning experience of her college career.
“This kind of project is more work, but it’s valuable work,” Seo said. “It’s very rewarding. They enjoy it, and they get to impact the community.”
Bhadury echoes this, acknowledging the extra workload these projects place on faculty as well and saying, “The reward is knowing that these students are well trained to go above and beyond in their careers. This is what we hold up as the paragon of excellence in teaching and mentorship.”
Kim Mrowczynski ’16, who graduated with degrees in marketing and business administration in May, feels the project with ESL helped earn her acceptance into the MBA program at the University at Buffalo.
“In my interview, it allowed me to expand upon my skills with a real-world example,” she said. “For an applicant with zero work experience, this allowed me to speak to an actual project rather than just speaking figuratively.”
In this first semester of her MBA work, Mrowczynski was surprised to discover that, in a group project with four other students, most of whom had several years of work experience, she was the only one who had worked with Qualtrics data-collection software and had facilitated a focus group.
“The fact that I am a standout due to a project in my undergrad work is amazing,” she said.